From a youngster who loved scoring brilliant individual goals, the experienced striker has matured into a player who puts the team first
Mandeep Singh is a crafty operator on the pitch but off it, he turns into one of the simplest characters of the Indian hockey team. He almost always wears a quintessential smile that puts everyone around him at ease. However, his friendly nature hides how lethal the 28-year-old becomes once his feet touch the turf with the stick in his hand.
His coaches know it too and that is why a succession of them, from Michael Nobbs – India coach when Mandeep debuted in 2013 as an 18-year-old – to current chief coach Craig Fulton, have always picked him for their teams. In an era where Hockey India (HI) regularly played musical chairs with coaches, Mandeep has been the only constant in the forward line in major tournaments over the last six years.
His adaptability, ability to articulate and willingness to learn makes him stand out.
“I am a real big fan of Mandeep,” said Fulton. “He is a fantastic player, a great teammate, good leader and at the same time, scores goals. He is fit and strong to press forward. Playing as a centre forward for India is not an easy job and he has done it for a long time. Hence, he understands the mental side too. He understands himself and adds a lot of value. He is playing like a young Mandeep again… which is great to see.”
Unlike characters like PR Sreejesh, Manpreet Singh or skipper Harmanpreet Singh, who know how to make their presence felt, Mandeep prefers to stay in the background. A product of the famous Surjit Singh Hockey Academy in Jalandhar that has also produced Manpreet, Varun, Simranjeet Singh, Akashdeep Singh, Ramandeep Singh among others, Mandeep focuses on the job at hand.
Known for his poaching skills in the striking circle, Mandeep is brilliant at finding gaps thanks to his peripheral vision and game awareness. During penalty corners too, drag-flickers utilise Mandeep to score during variations and that has helped the Punjab player reach an incredible tally of 184 goals in 218 appearances for India. When he can’t score, Mandeep is always on the lookout for a free team-mate.
“While pressing as a centre forward I am the first line of defence,” said Mandeep. “So, I must keep the setup and structure in place. In the forward line you can’t play an individual game. You have to be aware who is with you in the D. New coach (Fulton) emphasises a lot on passing between the forwards. If we go individually, we will get caught in the loop of the defenders but if we keep passing from one striker to another, we’ll constantly create gaps and it becomes easier to score.”
It is never easy to change your style of play but every new coach has a different playbook. Former coach Graham Reid, who guided India to an Olympic bronze two years back in Tokyo, stressed on the typical Australian-styled full press attack but Fulton believes in defending to win, maintaining a half court press which lessens gaps in the defence.
Under Fulton, though Mandeep will continue to play as a centre forward, he has been handed a slightly different role as witnessed at the Asian Champions Trophy (ACT) last month in Chennai.
“Now, too, we play full press but it is slightly different as it is a V-shaped press. Normally a centre striker plays up front. But in this style, I stay at the back. The idea is to trap the opposition player, steal the ball and quickly counterattack. It is like half-court press,” says Mandeep.
In modern hockey, it is nearly impossible to maintain a full press for the entire duration of 60 minutes. But the top-notch fitness of the Indian team has helped them push their limits of endurance, play full press most of the time, only returning to half-court when tired.
The strategy worked in Chennai. Though Mandeep scored only three goals, he was critical in providing assists and creating chances which helped India win the Asian Champions Trophy. His efforts didn’t go unnoticed as Mandeep was awarded the Player of the Tournament.
At the Asian Games, Mandeep will be India’s most experienced forward. From a youngster who was individualistic at the start of his career, dodging past opposition defenders to single-handedly score goals, Mandeep has become a guiding light for young strikers like Abhishek, Sukhjeet Singh and Gurjant Singh, who will also be heading to Hangzhou later this month, along with the seasoned Lalit Kumar Upadhyay.
“Back then (SV) Sunil and Ramandeep (Singh) allowed me to play individually. I could do that and get the desired outcome too. But now I am the senior in the forward line. The game has also changed. It is no longer individual. I can’t score a goal like that anymore,” says the Olympic bronze medallist.
“If a player is man-marking me and I cannot take a shot, I push it to someone who has a chance. In the camps, practice and drills, this is what I am trying to instill in the youngsters too. I always tell them if the gap is narrow, don’t take the hit. Instead, try to find someone at 45 or 90 degree angle who will have a better chance.”